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Six months ago, I was happily in the early stages of pregnancy and employed full-time with benefits at a good job. Then, owing to budget cuts, I was fired without cause.

Being pregnant and unemployed resulted in some soul searching.

I wasn’t sure whether an “office job” was right for me and doubted that I would find a full-time senior position while visibly pregnant. So, I stopped looking for work and started freelancing again.

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Freelancing didn’t just reduce my stress levels – it afforded me a better work-life balance, improved my well-being and led to greater job satisfaction. Needless to say, this was encouraging given my current situation, but I also know how fortunate I am because statistically, I am an anomaly.

According to Statistics Canada, about 7 per cent of all workers in Canada are self-employed and unincorporated with no paid help – that’s how I’m defining freelance. It’s a relatively small slice of the economic pie and the slice is even smaller for women. Of the 7 per cent of freelancing Canadians, less than half are women (47 per cent). This means that freelancing women represent about 3 per cent of the working population in Canada.

This made me wonder: Would more women benefit from the flexible work schedule that I now enjoy?

One of the reasons for this gap among freelancers is likely similar to why women continue to participate about 10 per cent less than men in the labour force over all – caregiving responsibilities.

They are leaving the labour force for personal or family reasons, such as taking care of children or an elderly family member. Women provide more than twice the amount of eldercare and child care than men, and 15 per cent of women who left the labour force said they did so for personal or family reasons, according to Statscan.

Emna Braham, a senior economist with the Labour Market Information Council, says the main limitations for women participating in the work force at the same rates as men are because of family responsibilities such as pregnancy and childbirth, and later on child care and elder care.

Historically, women have reduced their working hours by choosing part-time work in an effort to provide income while maintaining their caregiving responsibilities. According to Braham, women remain four times more likely to take time off work than men, and two times more likely to work part time. But part-time work is no panacea.

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Linda Duxbury, a professor of management at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, says that working part time doesn’t benefit the women who choose it. “They end up with higher stress levels and higher burnout than people who don’t go part time,” she says. “They end up doing more of everything [especially women in professions].”

While freelancing may not be a viable option for everyone, providing more flexible work options for employees should be feasible.

Since the beginning of September, anyone governed under the Canada Labour Code has the right to request flexible work arrangements. While definitions of flex work can vary, the general idea is that an employee can request flexible start and finish times, a compressed workweek, telecommuting or the option to work from home, among other possibilities.

These legislative changes don’t guarantee that an employer will provide flexible work options, but they do have to provide a good reason why they can’t accommodate an employee’s request.

Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable organization that examines the reality of family life in Canada, says that changing the legislation is significant because it will reduce the stigma associated with requesting flexible work arrangements. Historically, women started requesting flexible work schedules to accommodate for child care as they entered or returned to the work force in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Spinks hopes the legislative changes will have the same effect as when similar legislation was implemented in Australia. “It changed the conversation,” she says. “It removed the stigma, and it removed the gender ghetto related to flex work.”

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After flex work was incorporated in the Australian work force, a report by Chief Executive Women (CEW), an organization representing Australia’s most senior female leaders across various sectors, and the global management consulting firm Bain & Co. noted that younger men were more engaged in gender diversity initiatives because they understood that flexible work options and caregiver leave benefited everyone. The report highlighted Sweden as an example, where a mother’s future income increases by 7 per cent for every month in which her partner takes a primary caregiver role.

Speaking from experience, no group in the work force would benefit more from flexible work changes than women currently in the “sandwich” generation – those who are in their 30s and 40s caring for both their own children and their aging baby boomer parents. Those in the sandwich generation represent approximately 27 per cent of working Canadians, according to Statscan.

Aging baby boomers – typically those born between 1946 and 1964 – will result in a much larger proportion of seniors in the population as they retire. According to the Government of Canada, by 2030, seniors will make up 23 per cent of Canadians – that’s one in four.

With lower fertility rates, there will be fewer adults to care for them, which means their care will fall on the shoulders of family members – likely their daughters.

According to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center in the U.S., approximately a quarter of American women had quit their jobs because of their familial responsibilities. In Canada, according to a 2018 Statscan report, 15 per cent of women who left their jobs and are now out of the labour force said they did so for personal or family reasons.

Although men are taking on more caregiving responsibilities with their families, according to Statscan, women continue to perform more than twice the amount of elder care and child care. My own parents are still fairly independent; however, as they get older, I know they’ll require more of my attention and care.

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As elder care becomes the “new” child care, and places an additional demand on the sandwich generation, employees will require more flexibility. “The need for flex is only going to increase,” Spinks says. “The question is how do we manage flex so that no one is left behind?”

The number of on-demand workers, including freelancers, is projected to almost triple by 2021, according to a study conducted by Intuit Tax and Financial Center in the U.S.

As a result, how flexible work is defined in the 21st century for everyone – not just women and caregivers – will require an innovative approach.

While I didn’t choose to leave my job, it turns out being fired was one of the best things that’s happened to me. I’ve been able to focus on my physical well-being, and have had a very healthy pregnancy. I feel I owe that to finding a flexible work arrangement through freelancing.

Here’s to hoping my baby is as flexible as I’ve learned to be when it comes to work. And when it comes time to ramping up care for my parents, I hope I still have the flexibility to manage both child care and elder care.

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